But there is a lot of empty space in the universe.
The impossible empty space beneath a corpse floating in a dank, future alley way.
The vast empty space inside every atom.
The aching empty space between a mother and a daughter in a quiet west London suburb.
The empty space of the Kefahuchi Tract, hanging above us, seething with strangeness and charm.
And the empty space inside us. Somewhere to go. Somewhere to come back from.
Empty Space is easily the hardest SF I’ve ever read, in both senses of the word. It is also my first M. John Harrison I’ve ever read. It might not have been the wisest place to start, but it hasn’t put me off reading more Harrison as I loved his prose and the challenges his writing poses to the reader. This book was hard work for me as hard SF isn’t something my mind processes easily and I’m proud that I finished it and I found it very much worth the work as in the end the puzzle pieces fell together and the book made a beautiful sort of sense.
To be fair, I did know at the start that this was the third in a trilogy, but I thought I’d see how well it stood on its own. A lot of the confusion I felt reading the book and the hard work I had to put in, might have been alleviated if I’d read the first two books, Light and Nova Swing first. As it was, I kept wondering whether elements of the world building, specifically the nature of the Kefahuchi Tract, were explained in the previous books. Some things weren’t a problem, even without explanation, such as the Tailoring. I soon figured out that this was some kind of genetic modification people could have done to enhance themselves. I may not have gotten all the nuances and the complete depth of the procedure, but I understood enough to be getting on with. Not so much the world of the Kefahuchi Tract and the rest of space; at times I wasn’t sure whether all the places we found were real or whether in some parts or dimensions they were virtual entities and until I just decided to accept that I didn’t know how it worked, my mind kept getting stuck on trying to figure it out.
Once I’d convinced my brain to stop trying to make sense of everything and just read what happened, it was remarkably easy to fall into the story or stories, as there are actually two timelines. The first is set in the near future on Earth and follows Anna Waterman as she slowly loses her grip on life and seemingly her sanity. The other is set in the far future in the Kefahuchi Tract and mainly follows the assistant during her efforts of solving a set of puzzling murders and the crew of the Nova Swing while they go about picking up mysterious deliveries for an even more mysterious employer. Of the three narrative arcs, I started out enjoying Anna’s story the most, probably because it was easier to parse than the ones set in the far future, but toward the middle of the book I liked all of them equally and I didn’t keep looking to get back to Anna’s story.
All the story lines essentially pose the same question to its characters: Who are you and who do you want to be? In some cases this is rather in your face, such as the assistant’s continuing quest for a name to call herself by or the researcher, isolated far out in space, who sees his questions reflected in the alien entity that leavens his solitude. In other cases the point is more oblique. Anna’s life has been one long search for identity, but in the beginning it’s presented more like she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, rather than a woman with mental problems, it’s only through the eyes of her psychiatrist that we get to see Anna’s search and her ultimate answer. Empty Space looks at identity and how much of it is constructed by us and by our pasts, something shown beautifully by one of the Nova Swing’s crew members’ disastrous return to her home planet.
While the plot didn’t always make that much sense to me due to my lack of understanding of the mechanics of the world, by the time it wrapped up, it actually wasn’t as confusing as I’d thought—all the pieces fell into place. Except for the ending, that was rather open-ended and open for interpretation. But even when confused, I was enchanted with the writing. Harrison has a way with words that is remarkable and he manages to make clever allusions to other works that make you go ‘Aha!’ if you catch them and otherwise are just part of the beautiful prose. This is a book that will lend itself well to rereading, just to catch all the allusions and get the full impact of the stylistics at work and the clever clues given for the ending.
Would I recommend reading Empty Space as a standalone? Probably not, as I do feel I have probably missed out on a lot of the depth of this novel not having read Light and Nova Swing. One day I plan to get around to reading both of those and then rereading Empty Space, just to see what I missed here. Do I recommend Empty Space? Most definitely. If an inexperienced, unversed-in-(hard)-SF reader such as myself can get so much enjoyment out of this book, I’d surmise that to those with a good grounding in the field would be blown away by it. If anything, Empty Space has shown me I’ve a lot of reading to do to be able to appreciate the more complicated hard SF books out there. Empty Space has been an education all on its own.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.